(This was originally written in response to a friend’s e-mail. My friend asked some other friends to tell him about a beloved album that the correspondent was pretty sure that no one else getting the e-mail had ever heard. This was my reply, slightly edited for blog posting.)
In response to records not enough people know about, let me write a few words in praise of Dog Man Star by Suede. There are probably another half dozen or so I could write about, but this one popped into my head first, so let’s go with it.
Suede put out their first record in the early ’90s, and as cosmopolitan as the grunge era was supposed to be, it was pretty testosterone-fueled. Most people didn’t dig Nirvana because Cobain was some kind of new wonderful thing, they dug it because they rocked. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. That’s one of the many reasons I love them.
Suede likely had their first record put out by a major because it was the “alternative revolution” or whatever. But Nirvana making it big didn’t mean a bunch of faggy Brits were going to sell records in America. It was grunge, not Smiths-type stuff, that was selling. And as much as some of us would have liked Nirvana to lead listeners to Sonic Youth or to Suede or a million other bands, they instead led listeners to Candlebox and Dishwalla. To make matters worse, Suede were given a cease-and-desist or a lawsuit or something by an American band with the same name and had to change their name to The London Suede on this side of the pond, which didn’t help their marketing one bit.
The first single off of Suede was “Metal Mickey,” which got some MTV play because it was the “alternative revolution.” It’s a great song, and the album is terrific. But that was just the opening act.
The follow-up album, Dog Man Star, came out in late ‘94 or early ‘95. I had just moved back to Ann Arbor in a futile attempt to make a living with an English degree in a town largely populated by losers with English degrees. I was staying in an awful basement apartment and I was broke as shit. Nonetheless, I really liked the first Suede record, so when the second one came out, I scraped together sixteen bucks to buy it.
The first record was already better than 99% of all records, but this one was a mindblower. Everyone missed it, though. I doubt one track was played on MTV and I don’t even know what the single was.
Dog Man Star opens super artsy-fartsy with “Introducing the Band,” which works even though it shouldn’t, followed by “We are the Pigs,” which ends with a bunch of kids chanting “We all watch them burn!” It takes a special talent to get away with that level of pretention, and, at that moment, Suede had it in spades.
From there, it feels like you’re trapped in a nightclub in London at 3:00 AM, coming down from a long drunk but you’ve lost your friends and have no idea how to get home. That has nothing to do with the lyrics of the songs–that’s just the feeling it gives me, which is odd, as I’ve never been to London. There’s the song sort-of about Marilyn Monroe, where our protagonist is aching to see his heroin(e). There’s the kid-trapped-in-a-car-nightmare “Daddy’s Speeding.” There’s begging to be rescued from “This Hollywood Life” (OK, maybe it did have something to do with the lyrics after all). There’s the one where if you give him the power, he will make you believe. There’s the one where our protagonist is lying in his bed watching his mistakes while she runs about making permanent love to the nuclear age, whatever that means.
Had Dog Man Star just ended with track nine, it would have been a very good album, but not a classic. Track ten is an unfortunate bit of filler on an otherwise perfect record. Then we get to the payoff.
In High Fidelity (the movie—I haven’t read the book) the record geeks talk about one-two opening punches on records. “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” &c. Closing punches would be an equally valid record-geek conversation and this album should win.
First, there’s “The Asphalt World,” where he’s obsessed with a drug-fuelled booty call:
“She comes to me, and I supply her with Ecstasy.”
Unfortunately, given his choice of woman, she sleeps around a whole bunch, and he impotently screams at whoever she’s with tonight:
With ice in her blood
And a dove in her head
Well how does she feel when she’s in your bed?
When you’re there in her arms
And there in her legs
Well I’ll be in her head.
Well, maybe and maybe not, but jealousy’s a motherfucker.
“That’s how it feels when the sex turns cruel.”
Dude, I have no idea how it feels when the sex turns cruel, and I don’t want to know. It’s 3:00 AM and I want to go home.
“Yes, both of us need her—this is the asphalt world.”
But that’s not all. After that comes “Still Life.” I think it’s about sitting next to a window, waiting for her to come home, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t sound like the makings of an epic, but epic it is. After we’ve just heard about sex turning cruel and the world being asphalt, can we go further over the top?
Oh, yes we can. After two verses of standard tenor singing, verse three is when the dude launches into opera! “There by the window, quietly killed for you!”
Then there’s a glorious orchestral string part, followed by the symphony wrapping the whole thing up like a film score, which is entirely appropriate. And you’ve been exhausted for a long time but maybe finally you can go home.
The American version of the record threw on a useless “bonus” track. Skip it. The record ends with “Still Life.”
Suede were so good in this period that their next offering was a two-CD set of B sides and EP tracks, a throwaway so excellent that most bands would kill to have something of that quality in their catalog. Probably understanding that attempting to duplicate an epic would be a terrible idea, their next proper album was a collection of pop songs—a very good one, and I certainly don’t mean that as an insult because I love pop songs—but not an epic. After that, they descended into mediocrity with the occasional good song. I’m not even sure if they’re still around.
But, yeah. Dog Man Star.
At risk of giving away the ending, here’s “Still Life”:
Incidentally, the aforementioned e-mail exchange was the inspiration for our little blog.